We’ve written a lot about change, the inevitability of which is sometimes painfully obvious.
For example, the city of Santa Maria recently shifted from at-large City Council elections to district voting. The painful part was the move was forced by the threat of a lawsuit if the city didn’t change its voting system. But it may be for the best, as bigger cities work best with district voting.
Another example — for decades Santa Maria and the North County have been the step-children of a larger Santa Barbara. That changed about a decade ago when Santa Maria became Santa Barbara County’s most populous city. The Santa Barbara/Goleta complex still has the highest population, but when it comes to folks living within one city’s limits, Santa Maria is tops.
With size come responsibilities, one of which has recently emerged, such as three local school districts showing fairly dramatic increases in enrollment, at a time when enrollment in other county districts is shrinking.
Santa Maria-Bonita, Orcutt Union and Santa Maria Joint Union High School districts all report significant enrollment growth for the new school year, giving this region three of the five largest districts in the county.
That’s what happens when a smallish community grows into a bustling city over the course of just less than 40 years. The U.S. Census put Santa Maria’s population at about 40,000 in 1980. It has nearly tripled since then.
And it’s going to get even bigger. City officials say 1,300 residential units are currently in the permitting pipeline, and another 7,000 new residential units are expected over the next quarter-century. The Orcutt area is expected to add 6,000 new homes to that mix.
What this tells us is that school district policy makers have some serious work ahead of them. The reason all those new homes will be built is because the Santa Maria Valley has relatively affordable housing. True, homes here are expensive, but not when you consider what a prospective home buyer faces in South County communities.
If you buy into the build-it-and-they-will-come notion, it seems fairly obvious not just school boards have to get busy with planning for the future. Growth of the sort we are outlining here demands planning and preparation.
And it all puts more pressure on Santa Maria’s government, business and civic leaders to come together on strategies to attract businesses with jobs that pay well.
Much of the foundation for such a future has already been created. Allan Hancock College has turned into an excellent job-training machine, and could do even more if state officials have the wisdom to grant more community colleges the freedom to grant four-year degrees.
What has become abundantly clear is that the Santa Maria Valley is no longer a sleepy little village that exists only because of agriculture. Farming is still and will continue to be a major factor in the local economy, but it is time to grow in other economic directions.
Our recent news reporting on growing school districts tells us that school officials are on top of and even ahead of the problem of accommodating a rising tide of student enrollment. But school growth should be coordinated with other city and regional government functions.
Change is, indeed, happening and it’s happening at a rapid pace. What leaders from every segment of North County need to do is make sure the dizzying pace doesn’t lead to mistakes or a head-on crash with reality.
It’s good to remember the past, but we must focus on the future.